Photo Credit: Cori Taratoot
If you’ve ever stared at a blank page, waiting for inspiration, Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes might just piss you off. Fifteen years after slipping out of the dark wet womb, Oberst flipped off the high school status quo in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, formed his first band (Commander Venus), started his own label (Saddle Creek), and released his first record (Do You Feel at Home?). Eight years later, Oberst remains in manic creation mode. He can’t keep still; he can’t keep his fingers off the frets or his mad genius mind out of the studio. He’s been in three bands, recorded seven full-length albums (and a handful of EPs), collaborated with Britt Daniel from Spoon and Jimmy LaValle from Tristeza, played Pied Piper to a healthy throng of disaffected listeners, and generated some glossy music mag buzz. Many critics suggest that the 23-year-old is Dylan’s heir, and proof of such a fantastical apprenticeship is evidenced tonight at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Oregon. Kicking off the set with a new song filled with anti-war sentiments, Oberst practically mimics The Royal Bob in the phrasings of “Southern State”, a lesser-known track from Oberst’s partnership with Britt Daniel on Post-Parlo Records’ Home: Split EP Series Vol. IV:
Well the songs you sung spiraled and hung round like echoes or ripples on a pond
So you circled the globe spent a year on the road without ever going home
More than a couple of days then you leave right away run to a girl you barely know
But you like how she sings and you can’t help but think
That there’s something that she knows
And critiques you while you’re
Sleeping in that southern state
Where the bars are filled with people you can’t hate
But try as you try you still can’t relate to them
You drink that whiskey down
As they ask you
Are you really who you say you are?
Are you who say that you are?
Are you who say that you are you are you say that you are?
Are you who you say you are?
As Oberst repeats the line, “Are you who you say you are?,” ending the line in an ascending staccato, the repetition implies a narrative shift. First, the people at the bar ask the question of the singer. Then, the singer asks himself the same question. Then, with a Dylan-esque sneer, the singer asks us, pointedly, and angrily, are we who we say we are? It’s a deceptively simple, and tacitly complicated, refrain. The sophisticated tenor and rhythm of the song feels more like something you’d expect from Tom Waits, or Richard Thompson, not a 23-year-old kid. But this is a 23-year-old kid with big eyes. His choked vocals, spiraling indulgent verses, and self-referential lyrics turn some people off, but he doesn’t care. Conor Oberst is a seeker leaning for a redemption only he can imagine. It’s a spirit not altogether dissimilar from Dylan’s when he gave his folkie fans the symbolic finger as he plugged in at Newport in 1965, or when he repelled fans and critics alike with his early 1980s Jesus preachings.
Similarities with Dylan lie in Conor Oberst’s approach to music as well. His songs occur more like poetry. His sensitive and literate band, Bright Eyes, has a revolving cast of supporting musicians who exit and enter at the young bard’s command. Oberst makes the personal political, the political personal. What concerns him, and what he attempts to articulate in his songs, shames his peers in its scope and breadth. He lets the songs unwind sometimes for five minutes, sometimes more. He polarizes his listeners. You love him or you hate him. And even if you hate him and his quivering vocals you still can’t help but respect him. The young savant’s obvious departure from the world inhabited by Dylan? Conor Oberst’s got movie-star good looks. Think Tobey Maquire’s Peter Parker (post-spider bite) in Spiderman. Geeky, slightly edgy, probably a great kisser. Were it not for the fact that Conor Oberst is so damn punk rock, he’d be pin-up material for the middle.
Tonight, Oberst is less punk-rock and more refined. He kicks off the Bright Eyes set with an anti-war narrative that seems crafted in response to the recent “liberation” of Iraq. It’s about time. To quote Sleater-Kinney:
Where is the questioning?
Where is the protest song?
Since when is skepticism un-American?
—“Combat Rock” (One Beat, Kill Rock Stars, 2002)
Bright Eyes is delivering a scarce product; this is a brave anti-war stance from an artist who’s not yet achieved commercial success. Most under-the-radar indie rock bands (I’m not talking about Pearl Jam, or the Beastie Boys) have shown themselves to be chicken-shits when it comes to taking a public political stand. But Bright Eyes gets loud, right off the bat.
To put this in context, it’s worth mentioning one of Oberst’s side projects, the rock band Desaparecidos. The band takes its name from a word in Spanish given to dissenting citizens who were kidnapped or murdered or “disappeared” by their government. Desaparecidos’ material is more overt than the Bright Eyes canon, it screams about the external world, the American wasteland, suburbs and strip malls, the prostitution of capitalism.
But tonight, Bright Eyes seems like an ensemble dying to explode, and choosing to restrain itself. Instead of the erudite 17-piece orchestra of the last tour, tonight we get something that looks closer to a burned-out rock band. The lead singer rarely moves to an electric guitar, there’s a pedal steel on stage, and something in their faces reveals boredom, excessive control. There are auditory glimpses of the volcano beneath the surface, but no sign of it erupting. Every now and again Oberst jumps up onto the drum platform, stomps his feet, shakes his perfect head of hair. For the most part though, the performance is mostly a careful, low-key affair. Much of the material is from the last two albums, 2002’s Lifted, or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground and 2000’s Fevers and Mirrors, and it never seems to amp up the audience much. Everyone’s more down than up, more tired than wasted and exhilarated. Given the emotionally charged nature of the songs, the band’s tightness seems like a disconnect from the original seed of the songs.
Listen to Bright Eyes records and you’ll hear an artist dripping with mania, an artist who can’t stop creating. But tonight, we get the artist who’s keeping himself in check. If you arrived tonight hoping for a conversion, you likely did not find it. And if you arrived a fan, chances are you left one too.